© Tiberius Film/24 Bilder

Only God Forgives
France/Thailand/U.S.A./Sweden 2013

Opening 18 Jul 2013

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Writing credits: Nicolas Winding Refn
Principal actors: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, Gordon Brown, Yayaying Rhatha Phongam

How can a wimpy, mother’s boy from the U.S. manage a Bangkok drug den disguised as the Kickbox Night Club? He can’t, actually, and things go from bad to worse. Julian (Ryan Gosling) has spent ten years in Bangkok with his brother Billy. Billy kills a young prostitute. Ex-policeman Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) enables the girl’s father to take revenge and murder Billy. Then Chang hacks off this father’s arm as redress for the murder of Billy. And so it goes. For every crime, Chang is on the scene to assure that the guilty party is punished appropriately, often with death, often hard to watch. Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) comes to town; she is the force behind the drugs, prostitution, and accompanying crimes. She shakes poor Julian into action. He is supposed to find the killer of brother Billy.

I stopped counting the corpses. Perhaps it’s true that crime rates do go down when all the perpetrators are extinguished. At least that supports the theory that a film is finished when everyone is dead. My main impression was Julian standing gloomily before dark backgrounds of gym, club, and streets. Perhaps Crystal’s hotel room is the brightest spot in Bangkok, much good that does her. Kristin Scott Thomas is excellent as a screeching rooster of a mother, pushing her son on to revenge. That’s a tough job, since Gosling seems to be paralyzed in some unknown world of his own. His bright spot is his beautiful Thai girl friend Mai (Yayaying Rhatha Phongam). She truly makes the film worthwhile if nothing else does.

Ryan Gosling staring into space interspersed by seemingly senseless violence for 90 minutes can be controversial. Some of my colleagues rejected this film outright; others were inspired to analyze the deeper meaning. Heinrich Oehmsen of the Hamburger Abendblatt called it a “Greek tragedy.” This film played in the 2013 Cannes film festival, where critics were also divided. I would recommend it to film aficionados who are not in it for light entertainment, who find it exhilarating to search out symbolism and even discuss it. How about “God” or “dark angel of the night” to start with? (Becky Tan)

Second Opinion

This film debut in Cannes was booed by the critics and continued to the Comic Con and still got bad marks. Set in the dark seedy underworld of Bangkok, two brothers run a fighting studio to cover up their drug business. The atmosphere is stifling with dark abrasive colors, and the characters are highly stylized with minimum dialog. Within five minutes the first brother has committed a murder and then is caught. The girl’s father has to make a choice. With blood on his hands he has to face the chief inspector, who sings karaoke and is a master in the martial arts and is the character which clearly sets the border between good and evil. When the surviving son’s (Ryan Gosling) mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) shows up, the film continues on a course where we the audience are even more uncomfortable.

The film has a David Lynch quality in exploring dreamlike ambiances combined with strangely closed and abrasive characters. Winding Refn said this film was inspired by the difficult pregnancy of his second child, and I really wonder how that child is going to feel seeing the film which pays tribute to his birth when he is older. I find it hard to recommend this film to anyone since it was anything but enjoyable. There are many aspects that Winding Refn accomplished, but for me the best he did was create a film that represents the afterbirth of a delivery. I am always surprised how some good films never make it through the circuit, and films like this one seem to get more chances based on the director’s reputation. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

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